After a sucessful revival of Dracula and Frankenstein in a double bill, Universal decided to it was high time to revive the monster once again. However the sequel was to be done without many of the series' stalwarts, with only Karloff returning . But could new boy Rowland V. Lee match the heights of James Whale's direction?
The first thing to note about his production is that the script was being constantly rewritten during shooting. However to Lee's credit, the finished film shows little of this behind the scenes turmoil. Certainly the the movie wanders a little in the middle section, but in fairness this is nitpicking. After all, a tendency to lose a little pace around the halfway mark is a common affliction in most movies, and when watching Son of Frankenstein you wouldn't guess that new pages of script were often turning up on set on a daily basis! And that's an impressive feat for any director. Alot of films which suffer this end up as Alan Smithee productions.
However Lee's accomplishments don't just end with making a coherent movie from a hydra-headed script. Firstly there's the fantastic casting and the performances he got from them. Bela Lugosi excels as Igor, the villainous graverobber. Lugosi often gets accused of being a terrible ham, but his portrayal of Ygor shows great depth and subtlety, and quite possibly tops his genre-defining performance of the Count. Indeed it's worth noting that due to this film, Ygor will always be the name associated with a mad doctor's deformed assistant in the popular imagination. Therefore, at the very least, Lugosi's Ygor has proved to be an iconic performance equal to his Dracula.
Equally impressive is Ygor's nemesis, Lionel Atwill's Inspector Krough. Despite having an arm ripped of by the monster in his youth, Krough is a more complex character than the usual monster-chasing hero. He tries to keep the peace between the new Baron Frankenstein and the anxious populace, rather than lead a torch and pitchfork wielding mob. While Ygor is the sinister schemer, manipulating both Frankenstein and the monster, Krough is very much his reflection, icarrying out counterpoint string pulling. He attempts to keep the villagers at peace, investigates the monster's murders and tries to discover the extent of Frankenstein's involvement. The interplay between Atwill and Rathbone is also great. Krough rightly suspects that Wolf is following in his father's footsteps but still tries to gain his confidence.
Atwill imbues Krough with a calculating intelligence and deep integrity and honour. And he achieves this with his character having one of the most bizarre character traits in movie history. Krough's missing arm has been replaced by a wooden one, which he manipulates to give himself the use of two arms. Now this could have easily been used to comedic effect (as Mel Brooks did in 'Young Frankenstein'), but Atwill and Lee carefully ensure that never happens. Whenever Krough is moving his replacement arm, it underlines not just the threat of the monster but the strength and virtues of Krough. Here is a man who by rights should be first in line to lead the mob against Wolf Frankenstein as soon as he alits from the train, yet he does the opposite and welcomes the new Frankensteins and tries to avert the villagers' hostility. Moreover the way he uses his arm suggests a man who in the face of adversity as chosen to calmly carry on regardless; his affliction may have precluded him from fulfilling his ambition to become a solider but he will be the best, most committed police inspector possible.
The last newcomer to look at is Basil Rathbone. Most famous for his performances as Sherlock Holmes (the first two films in the long running series would appear in the same year as Son of Frankenstein), he proves he can create a Frankenstein distinct from Colin Clive yet just as memorable. As Wolf Frankenstein, he portrays a man who wishes to escape his father's monster-making shadow but ultimately catches his father's scientific fervour when he discovers the survival of the monster. Indeed as the film progresses, he gradually begins to develop nervous tics that cleverly echo Clive's performance. He convincingly depicts a man who is not only trapped between the pull of Ygor and Krough, but also between his own family life and his father's legacy. All in all, Rathbone's Wolf Frankenstein proves to be a more complex and believeably character than Clive's Henry.
Needless to say, Karloff is still excellent as the monster. After the events of the last film, the monster is once more mute and seems a little less intelligent now - presumably either due to damaged suffered or the 'sickness' he is suffering from when Ygor first reveals him. Although the monster is a good deal more evil under the bidding of Ygor, there is still pathos and depth in Karloff's performance. The scene where the revived monster confronts Wolf is particularly memorable.
In addition to these three great turns, Lee has other aces up his sleeve. This film boasts beautiful cinematography and fantastic sets. Now the Frankenstein home has become an Expressionist labyrinth of jutting angles and twisted architecture, with Lee's camera work and light making the most of harsh lines and deep shadows. The film has great visual flair, creating a rich and atmospheric world for the drama to unfold in. Jeremy Dyson in Bright Darkness notes that many subsequent directors have borrowed shots from this film - most strikingly Orson Welles' Citizen Kane; as Dyson points out Welles borrows Lee's opening sequence practically shot for shot.
Son of Frankenstein is a fine film. It not only delivers the expected chills but also continues to intelligently explore wider themes. Lee wisely focuses the action through the character's relationships rather mere monster mayhem, and in doing so creates genuine drama and tension. It is a worthy sucessor to the Whale films and in my view comfortably equals them, forming a very solid trilogy of Frankenstein movies. It's actually my favourite of the Universal sequels - though it's a very close call between Son of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein.
However this was to be the last outing for Karloff as the monster, and the following films of the series would not maintain the high standards of the first three...